University City

Ritch holiday tradition a gift to neighborhood

In the Autumnwood neighborhood along Toby Creek, just south of the UNC Charlotte campus, you know that Christmas is just around the corner when the Ritch family puts up a tent in the front yard and rolls two wheelbarrows to the middle of the lawn.

For two decades, the Ritch family has hosted a bonfire and caroling party open to the Autumnwood neighborhood. Under the tent, there’s hot cocoa and other holiday treats, and the wheelbarrows hold a small wood fire, perfect for roasting marshmallows.

The new tradition takes place after Thanksgiving and before mid-December. This year’s event was held on Dec 1. By the time dusk settled, the yard was filled with neighbors and members of the Ritch family, catching up on news and comparing notes on everything from shopping the Black Friday sales to keeping up with fast-growing children.

There wasn’t much talk of health care or shenanigans in Raleigh (well, only a little, maybe). At the Ritch’s gathering, people discuss the kind of news that once characterized village life – who is doing well, who is a little down, what’s up with the weather.

Pretty much all the gardeners were caught off guard by this year’s early cold snap into the 20s, prompting tales of valiant if Three Stooges-worthy, late-night attempts to save tender plants on the porch by bringing them indoors, then trying to figure out where to put them, bugs and all.

Just like every year, there were lots of little kids running around, waving marshmallows on sticks. There were also plenty of young men and women who looked familiar, since just a few years ago, they were the children crowding around the wheelbarrows toasting marshmallows and waiting for Santa.

Now grown up, Autumnwood’s daughters and sons are coming home from college to gather around the fire, to talk about classes and careers.

Stephanie Ritch is a good example.

When Ed and Vicky Ritch started this tradition in their front yard years ago, daughters Jennifer and Stephanie were little girls, giggling behind the reindeer decorations.

Now, Stephanie is a student teacher who works with kindergarteners. She’s passionate about giving each child the kind of caring support they deserve, the kind of support she received growing up from a loving family, and a supportive community. She’ll make a great teacher.

Jennifer has also taken on a big job. After Ed passed away, the family decided to keep on holding the signature event, to honor his memory and to continue to share this unique gift with their neighborhood.

But there was a problem – who could play Santa now that Ed was gone? Jennifer has taken on the role, and there has never been a more convincing Santa Claus, with a merrier laugh.

The gathering is mostly unscripted, but there a couple of rituals now familiar to everyone. Santa comes out, sits on a bench, and listens to wishes from kids on her lap.

After Santa’s visit, the crowd gathers around the Ritch’s broad front porch decorated with sparking lights and winter greenery, everybody joins in singing old carols and new, from “Silent Night” to “Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer.”

After that, things wind down. The latest cohort of little kids begins to yawn and hang on their parents’ arms, as the beautifully diverse crowd – all ages, all colors, all creeds, all politics, all preferences, all neighbors – shares holiday greetings, says goodbye, and walks back home.

A few linger beside the dying coals, recalling memories, and sometimes coming up with cool new ideas: A family with horses wonders how hard it would be to add riding trails to Reedy Creek Park, like the ones at Latta Plantation, maybe with a therapeutic riding program and trails connecting to UNC Charlotte.

An older man, clearly speaking from experience, makes some excellent suggestions on who to contact and how to proceed.

“The trick,” he says, “is to make people think it’s their idea.”

That’s a bit of wisdom that applies to politics at all levels, from the local PTA, to the statehouse in Raleigh, to the White House in Washington, D.C.

Of course, communities need more than politics. We need places where neighbors can forget their differences and sip cocoa, swap stories and sing carols around a warm fire. For that to happen, it takes good people like the Ritch family, willing to open their hearts and share their yard to create common ground.